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Counter Shading

by Te

Counter Shading
by Te
December 21, 2003

Disclaimers: I don't even own most of the books, man.

Spoilers: "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker," in an AU-ish way.

Summary: Tim didn't need to be taught everything.

Ratings Note: R.

Author's Note: This takes place within current comics canon. No, I know what I said in the spoilers. Just trust me. Or, you know, don't.

Acknowledgments: Benway put ideas in my head. The Spike spun them out with me. Jack held my hand, and gave many helpful suggestions. The Spike also gave me a title.

Feedback: Adored. teland@teland.com

*

In his head, Tim is juggling the following items:

The fake, wax apple on Professor Jameson's desk, redder than the lipstick of the prostitute Robin spoke with last night.

The bundled up rag used and re-used to wipe down the white-board -- this is difficult. The rag is neither wet nor particularly dirty.

The ballpoint pen he's chewing on.

The plastic butterfly clips in Deanna Wilson's hair.

It's not that he's particularly fond of juggling -- without an audience, at least, and even then...

It's just that Professor Jameson is saying nothing especially interesting about the world of trigonometry. The textbook is brand new, excellent, and long-since completed on a shallow level.

He's been six weeks ahead of the class on a deeper level pretty much since the semester began.

This won't change.

A quick glance around -- more with his body than his eyes in a way he doesn't, quite, have words for -- reveals his classmates in all their glory.

Glaze-eyed there, suspiciously rapt there. No one's even passing notes.

Tim puts a waxen worm in the apple and gets creative with the loops and patterns.

*

Robin slips on, turns on, exists with the mask.

A few years ago, when Nightwing had visited Gotham for one epically angst-ridden reason or another, Tim had asked him about it.

Nightwing had blinked into Dick, right there on the rooftop, and given him a look. "He's always there, I guess. I don't think I've really thought -- no, that's not true. I obsessed about it when I was fifteen or so." He'd smiled. "I guess you're just early."

Dick had ruffled his hair, breathed, and gone back to being Nightwing, just like that.

Tim isn't sure about it, at all.

Intellectually, it makes sense. All of these things, all of these people have to exist in order for any of it to make sense at all.

A handful of men stuffed into Bruce Wayne's body, a few women in Barbara's. And in him...

What?

It has to be real.

It just doesn't feel real, exactly.

Tim puts one foot on the guard-rail around tonight's starter rooftop, breathes deep and looks out over the city.

He's been in this movie for years, now.

It just hasn't stopped filming yet.

The metaphor is as good as any other.

*

Ashley asks him out, again, on Wednesday.

Ashley's hair curls blonde and bright over her shoulders. She doesn't so much lean against the lockers as let herself fall with a muffled, controlled crash.

"So...?" she asks, blue eyes wide with moderately stoned laughter.

Tim shuffles through his options and decides on Shy Boy. Hardly anyone ever questions it. He thinks it goes well with being a little small for his age. "Uh..."

She rolls her eyes. "It's just a club, Tim. Not even one of the good ones. There's, like, chaperones and stuff. Good music, though."

"I'm not really much of a dancer, Ashley..."

"Hmmph. Think about it, okay?"

He gives her Grateful Smile # 4.

It makes her blink and blush like the teenaged girl she's been trying not to be at least since he's known her. She recovers quickly, though, standing up straight and putting on her own smile: The Sophisticate.

He stands still for the trace of her dampish index finger over his cheek.

"You are way too cute for your own good, Timmy." She giggles, mostly at herself, he thinks, and hip-sways down the hallway.

He's just late enough for study hall.

*

There's nothing to do, after school.

Ashley's disappeared with the other stoners, a smile for him tossed over his shoulder -- there's a definite pattern to that. Ashley doles out attention and encouragement almost exactly one-fifth less often than the average girl does for the average boy-that-girl-likes. Which is still significantly more often than the boys remember to do for the girls.

She's fascinating, in her way.

Basketball is tempting in exactly the wrong ways.

His body has been annoyingly slow about dealing with the limitations of what Tim can and can't show his acquaintances on a day-to-day basis.

He suspects it has something to do with adrenaline, or just adolescence.

Or maybe basketball is just too much fun to fake. His body certainly enjoys it.

He watches the other boys stumble and foul their way across the court for a moment, another.

It's been twelve days since he's shown up at WayneTech. Good enough.

*

Janice smiles at him in the usual way when he steps off the elevator into Bruce's office -- like something important behind her face is melting.

Tim falls into it the way he's supposed to, grinning back and jumping on her desk. He's almost sixteen, but it's an adaptable move, especially since Janice's desk is always, always near-spotless.

He leans and rolls and lounges, bracing himself on his elbows and turning his grin into something closer to a leer. "Heya, Janice." He waggles his eyebrows.

"Oh, you." If she had a handkerchief, she'd be flapping it at him.

Janice isn't nearly as old as she pretends to be, though that... it's curious. He's not sure how much flirting he can get away with for Janice's inner prude, versus how much he can get away with for Janice's inner thirty-eight year old.

Probably the same, and probably for entirely different reasons. It's a little frustrating.

"Your beauty makes me foolish," he simpers, and bats his eyelashes.

She rolls her eyes and gives him a gentle push.

Tim pauses for just long enough to let Janice know she hadn't really pushed him that hard, then rolls himself with conscious awkwardness onto the floor, landing about half as well as he actually can, but there's a continuum to this. A known number of degrees.

Janice's eyes widen.

Tim clutches his chest and gasps, "you wound me to the... uh. To the quick!"

She laughs.

Tim smiles.

"Mr. Wayne is in a meeting now, but you know you can go right in, Timmy."

He considers playing it up a little more, but decides to just smile a little wider. "Okay, Janice. Don't let him know I'm here, hunh?"

She winks at him. "Our secret."

*

He forces himself into a stretch Dick could do in his sleep. While actively restrained.

He can do it, but it's nowhere near as easy as it was when he was twelve.

He can just see his extended feet out of the corners of his eyes. The top edge of the chair is that precise kind of steady that's all about his control -- fragile and ominous.

Tim straightens his spine and forces the stretch a little further, his legs almost parallel to the floor.

This is going to hurt very, very soon.

Sweat beads on his forehead and Tim forces it, increasing the pressure until the chair swings -- left. Damn.

He flips back and off, sticking the landing more out of luck than anything else.

"Careless." Bruce is leaning against the closed door, a file of very-important-but-not-really documents in his right hand that he flips through with his left.

He's grown out of the surprise. The only question is how long Bruce has been standing there. As ever, it's impossible to be sure. Tim shakes his head. "On purpose. Mostly."

"You're not, actually, an acrobat, Tim."

"And that stops you, when?"

The barest hint of a facial twitch. Clearest sign of any that Bruce is somewhere outside the room. "What are you up to?" Or not.

It's hard to tell, sometimes. Tim shrugs. "Nothing much. Had a question, though."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, the physical thing. What's the trick?" He plays with the chair, rolling it back and forth. Watches Bruce register the apparently nervous motion, watches him sink a little deeper. Or rise a little higher. One or the other.

"Did something happen?"

Tim grins, and makes it look just as easy as it is. "Nah. I'm just..." Lets the grin fade. "I can't seem to make myself look clumsy. Not all the time."

There never was anything like a furrow in Bruce's brow, but it clears anyway. He snaps the file folder shut. "There's no trick, really. It's just that as you get older --"

Tim rolls his eyes on cue.

"As you get older, there will be fewer opportunities for you to slip. Bruce Wayne can be a good a dancer as he needs to be. No one will ask him to shoot hoops in the playground."

Which... makes sense. "But --"

"There is one thing."

Better. Tim puts on his attentive-face. "Yeah?"

"Tire yourself out."

It's so brilliantly simple that Tim's face wants to slacken with simple awe. He rolls his eyes instead. "You're just trying to get me to work out more."

Bruce smiles at him, eyes sharp and focused as any predator's. "Maybe."

And it's... he wants to ask. Why do you want me to be this, when I can be something else entirely? Something more.

What are you getting out of this?

But he knows the answer. He's known that for years.

He scowls, perhaps a little blacker than he should, and spins the chair hard enough for it to crash against the desk. A little. "Right."

Bruce's smile softens exactly the way it should.

*

The thing about Robin is that there are times when Tim suspects he isn't as smart as he could be.

As he is.

But there are ways to be Robin, and ways not to be Robin, and none of it has anything to do with Dick, or even Jason, except in the ways that Robin can and can't behave around Batman.

Around Bruce.

And yet, there really has to be a better way, a better compromise.

Because Robin is just so damned careless. Not a child, nothing like one, sometimes.

But young, just the same.

Dashing, swashbuckling, friendly, competent, innocent.

Caught.

And just because Robin's gauntlets are the ones manacled to the table doesn't mean that Tim is any closer to getting the hell out of here.

It is, in short, a problem.

*

Three days in and several things are very, very obvious.

One, Batman doesn't have clue one where he is.

Two, he hasn't given the question of pain in regards to his own tolerances nearly enough thought. Tim thinks there could be novels written about this. Encyclopedias.

Three, the Joker wants something very, very specific.

Leaning in close, teeth long and horse-ish and discolored. You can't tell anything about Joker from his smile. That's a given.

His eyes are as bright and avid and mindless as a bird's.

Tim knows that look, too.

Robin spits in the man's face.

Tim cringes against the way Joker's eyes focus.

Novels.

*

He's seen that movie. He's seen a lot of movies, but that one was a favorite, in an uncomfortable kind of way.

Very sixties. The way sci-fi movies where everyone wore jumpsuits were very seventies.

He hasn't give enough thought to this, enough literary deconstruction.

Because Harley is stroking his face, moving effortlessly away from the bruises. There are a lot of bruises. Novels.

Maybe he'll get to this in college. Film school. Analysis.

The film on the screen is grainy, unprofessional. The kind of black and white that Tim's brain wants to call 'artistic,' but it isn't that, at all.

He hasn't studied enough.

Because this is very, very Clockwork Orange, and he...

He isn't sure what, exactly, he's supposed to be doing.

There's what Joker wants Robin to do -- flinch and sicken and break at the sight of his own body on the screen, at the things that were done to it after Tim had managed to put himself into a trance.

There's what Harley wants Robin to do -- "you really need to talk, sweetie." Stroke, stroke.

Tim doesn't have much to call on for this. It's begun to seem... repetitive to sneer, and cursing only gets him so far. It's not that it's entirely unexpected. Robin always gets rescued, and so resists and hopes and generally gets stupider and stupider to Tim's eyes.

Because this was always going to happen, wasn't it? Something like this.

The Tim-on-screen makes noises that Tim doesn't remember.

He can smell himself.

He doesn't know how long its been.

*

And then it's clear, so clear that Tim wants to laugh, never stop laughing. And maybe... maybe that's what he's supposed to do?

"Well, why didn't you say so?" is what he says, and he can see how different he must look, must sound, by the way Harley's eyes widen behind her domino, the way her pig-tails bounce, bells ringing with uncomplicated joy.

He can see it in Joker's hungry, hungry smile, and feel it in the clutch and flex of the spidery hand on his ankle.

He can see it.

It's just another... card in the deck.

*

There's a wall between Tim and the rest of the world.

Literally.

He traces the edges of the two-way mirror, the back of his neck itching and pulling. He's being watched, and he has a general idea from where, but there are no cues, no way to tell even how many people there are.

He doesn't think this is the way it's supposed to go.

Still, there are always, always options.

The first -- railing and throwing everything not actively bolted down, had just brought in the orderlies.

They train orderlies better than henchmen, and it had only taken three of them to wrestle him down and drug him unconscious.

The second option... just might work better.

He lets his eyes widen, and hugs himself against the cold that only exists in the abstract and metaphorical.

Literary criticism, yes, very necessary. He'd like to have a better idea why being stuck in this hospital is so... enervating. Beyond the obvious.

Later. After he gets out.

He stares at the exact center of the mirror, and works, and works, and works. Pain -- much too abstract. An early lesson: the body forgets.

Old Yeller -- better.

Dead kittens... maybe too much.

Back to Old Yeller.

The first tear forms and he forces himself not to blink, to keep his eyes wide until the pain isn't abstract at all, anymore.

"Please," he says, staring.

And there are sounds beyond the locked door, muffled yells and scuffling.

He holds the expression until he can bury his face against Bruce's suit-jacket.

"Tim. Tim, I'm so --"

"You have to get me out of here," he whispers. "It's." Really fucking annoying. "I can't take it."

"I'll take you home."

*

Tim sits on the edge of the bed, careful not to rumple it too much.

In his head, he isn't doing much at all.

There is... a great deal to consider.

So many questions.

Why does it still feel like a movie, first and foremost. He recognizes his own tendency to apply quick fixes, easy definitions that allow things to be filed away and forgotten until he needs to call them up again for something or another.

It's just that there's a vast, apparently very important difference between the way he views that tendency and the way everyone else does. Even Bruce.

He can't put it into words, yet, it's too big and dangerous.

In his sessions with Dr. Thompkins, he is as silent and uncommunicative as he can manage.

It works -- the books had all suggested the woman would expect just that. Even from a Robin.

And that's the difficult part. Because...

Because he's not, actually, a trauma case. He just has to figure out how to play one convincingly enough that they won't figure out the real problem.

He gets it now -- that part at least.

He's read enough.

Because there are always rules, and he's not following them. He's not following them in a way that's bound to make someone suspicious.

They'll lock him up again.

They'll lock him up again when they drag his dead body out of here.

Because... because he knows what will happen, now. There'll be a tiny room, and eyes on him from everywhere and nowhere, and they'll watch him, and try to... fix him?

"The world is full of the ignorant and unthinking," Bruce had said, once.

And it hadn't exactly been news, and it still isn't.

It's just that he never expected Bruce to be one of them.

If he hadn't been what he is...

God. All Joker had wanted from him was what he did every fucking day of his life. What he'd been doing for as long as he could remember, long before he ever put on a mask.

Everyone wants something, everyone needs something, needs you to be something. This one wants a pliable boyfriend, this one wants a cute teenaged boy to flirt with ever-so-innocently.

They want a leader, distant but full of compassion. And this one...

This one wants a son. A better one than he thinks he could ever have, happy and simple and smart and good. This one needs that the way Tim needs air and space to move.

It's just that if he'd been that, any of that, he'd be a shaking little puddle on the floor instead of... this.

And none of them want that.

Except that they really, really do.

"More than anything else, people want to be reassured. They want something solid to believe in, something orderly and consistent," Bruce had said, some other time.

Bruce is very, very intelligent.

Tim just isn't sure he's smart enough for this.

Footsteps beyond the closed door, and Tim checks himself carefully. His body is loose -- he straightens his spine.

His face is blank -- he raises an eyebrow in question.

Considers.

Listens harder -- it's Bruce.

There has to be a way to explain... but.

Tim hasn't thought of what it might be, yet.

He lets himself go rigid with tension, and widens his eyes.

*

"Robin... Tim."

It's his own damned fault.

"I don't think. I don't think you should go out, anymore."

He's made it too easy. Too logical.

'Something to believe in.' Right. The law of unintended consequences.

But Tim's not going to let this happen. Getting out of the hospital and staying out was just the first step. And he has been very, very patient. "Bruce, there's something you don't understand," he says, domino in his hand. The only part of the uniform he'd been able to find.

"Tell me." And it is Bruce, frayed around the edges and just as open as he should be. Moreso.

His own fault.

But he can work with that.

Tim looks at Bruce, looks him in the eye and holds the look.

Waits.

"Tim?"

Tim smiles, and takes a step closer.

Another.

"Bruce," he says, in the voice that's only ever existed within his own mind, and has to pause.

It sounds...

He wants to touch his own throat, wants to feel it.

He shakes it off. Bruce is... solidifying before his eyes. Sinking in to the Bat. There's no time.

Tim tilts his head up and leans in, just enough to breathe against Bruce's chin. "Bruce," he says. "There's a difference between perception and reality."

"Tim --"

"I didn't need you to teach me that, Bruce," he says, and presses his lips to the man's jaw.

"Tim. We can't do this." Hands on his shoulders.

Tim wonders if Bruce knows how telling that is. That he hadn't even asked what Tim was doing. Just one, dry kiss, dripping with ambiguity. He lets the smile out, in part, and feels Bruce shake.

And Bruce pushes him away, softly. Stares. He's a very, very smart man.

Tim lets himself be moved. "Where's the suit?"

There's something like dawning horror in the man's eyes. Too much.

Tim gives him the wide-eyed look he's so deeply sick of. "I just need to... I need to help. Someone."

This close, he can see the shuffle in the man's eyes. Bruce-the-father, Batman-the-warrior, everything else.

"I'm all right," he says.

And Bruce narrows his eyes. "I don't think that's even close to the biggest lie you've ever told me."

Tim can't hold back a wince, and doesn't bother to try. A smart man. He shakes his head. "How much does it matter? Really. Against everything else?"

"Tim --"

"I need this." And you owe me, he doesn't have to say.

A long, long look, and Tim suspects most of it, whatever it is, is buried behind Bruce's face.

But eventually, Batman nods, sharply, and walks toward a case Tim hadn't noticed before, tucked neatly against the wall of the Cave.

The suit, the belt, the boots. The cape.

There's a... it's relief, it has to be. Swelling against the insides of Tim's chest and making it impossible to see for a moment, impossible to even think.

Only relief, true relief, could ever hurt like this.

"Thank you," he says, and reaches for Robin's clothes.

Batman catches him by the wrist. "You're not going out alone."

Tim blinks.

Nods.

He hadn't really expected understanding, after all.

Not even from Batman.

He twists his arm free.

Turns his back.

And changes.

end.


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